How to Keep Software Testers Motivated

Lessons for leaders on guiding others in a purpose-driven way

picture of man leaping across a chasm

Recently, I gave a talk at Agile Testing Days called “How to Keep Testers Motivated.” This topic is one that’s close to my heart because as COO, I manage all of Abstracta’s operations that rely on the effort of more than 100 software testers. Therefore, the motivation of the people working with us is a key factor to success: the company’s success, the different teams’ success, and their personal success.

I remember last year during the TestingUY conference in Uruguay, Melissa Eaden was answering a question from the audience and she said that everyone can do testing, but only a tester does good testing. I fully agree with her, but I like to add a little detail to this affirmation, which is that only a motivated tester does good testing.

So that’s why it’s really important also to talk about motivation and to think of different strategies to raise the engagement and the motivation levels of our testers.

In this post (and in this episode of Quality Sense episode which you can listen to below), I’ll share what I presented in my Agile Testing Days talk about leading testers and some of my personal experiences. But, don’t get me wrong; I’m still learning, I’m still struggling with a lot of things. The things I’ve learned are mostly because I failed, which is why I wanted to share these ideas with you so you can avoid the same mistakes I made. 

Have a Clear Purpose That Drives You in Everything

The first idea I shared may sound cliche, but it’s really important to have a clear purpose, to have a clear motive for what we do. 

We need to connect what we do—all the actions and tasks and things that we do—with our purpose. Motivation means having a motive, a purpose. So it’s really important to have this very, very clear. And you can think about it on different levels. You could start thinking about why do we do what we do or why do we build this specific product or this specific feature? 

Or why do we test? Or why do we have to run this specific test scenario in our test automation? But the thing is, how can we help in our position as leaders? How can we help others in order to think of and define their purpose and to connect what they’re doing with their purpose? 

Connecting with Your Purpose

There are a couple of activities or exercises that you can try during one-on-ones or team meetings. One of them is thinking about the definition of success and how it looks for every one of us. Think about the success of this week. How can this week be successful or how can this year be a successful year? Then, you could also think about success in regards to our lives, or maybe where we want to be in five or 10 years. It’s difficult to think about this type of thing, but what if you’ve never thought about it?

Another activity that is similar, but comes from a different perspective, is imagining how the future will be a better place thanks to the things that we are doing today. 

For example, in my case, one of the things that I aim to do is generate more business with clients in the US for my company. I can see a better future with this because I’ll be creating more quality job opportunities for the people in Latin America, in Uruguay and Chile specifically, where our testers are. And that will make a huge impact on the quality of life for many families. And believe me, where I come from, we need more job opportunities!

Another exercise you can try to do is to ask yourself: When have I felt like I scored a goal? We did this exercise a few weeks ago with our leadership team and some of the things they mentioned were; “When others see the value in what I do,” “When I help others,” “When people thank me or recognize my contributions,” “When the company or the team receives recognition,” “Or when a happy client recommends us to other clients or their new company.” 

So as you can see, most of these “scored goals” relate to feeling loved, feeling valued and feeling that someone cares about what you do.

“This is a very important factor for motivation that I’ll reiterate several times, but it’s really important to feel that someone cares about you.” 

It’s also worth mentioning that purpose is not written in stone. It isn’t static. It’s something that typically evolves with time. So, I think it’s very healthy to think about and revisit our purpose from time to time. 

I remember some years ago, we wanted to be the “best testing company in the world.” I don’t even know what that means. It wasn’t working as a motivator. Actually, it’s based on competition and that is not something that works for everyone. At least not for me… I personally started the company because I wanted to make a living, working with friends. I enjoyed working with my friends, and working on a cool project in technology. 

Of course, that motivation has since evolved and grown into something greater. Today what motivates me is the fact that our work creates good job opportunities.

This is probably due to my personal story. I grew up in a very humble family in the countryside in Uruguay and thanks to the effort of my mother and the environment around me, I had the chance to get a degree in computer science which changed my life completely; and also my family’s life. (I think it was very important that in Uruguay, going to university is completely free.)

So I’m working hard to be able to provide others with similar growth opportunities and because of all of that, I really believe that having a clear purpose and connecting it to your daily tasks is really important as it directly affects your own motivation. 

Provide Testers the Freedom to Make Decisions

Now to my second point from the talk, which relates to the freedom to choose one’s path. This was actually one of the main points from Melissa’s talk. She mentioned how, if you enjoy testing and want to keep doing it, you may be limited because the only option for you to move up could be to become a test automator or a manager. The ability to move up while also doing what you love is really important in one’s career and when you don’t have many options, your motivation is also restricted. 

One of the things that really helps to motivate is having the sense of autonomy—the feeling that what’s happening in my life is my decision. This is why it’s really important to be flexible and offer your testers many options. And don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have clear paths to follow, but when you’re exploring the forest, the less traveled paths are very interesting to see also, right? 

Career Roadmapping

At Abstracta, instead of outlining a career path inside the company, we prefer to call it a career roadmap. Because “career” in Spanish could also be misunderstood as a race, which implies competition. It shouldn’t be a competition. 

So we prefer to think of it like a career roadmap where you have different highways that many people are traveling along, but you could try to find shortcuts or some new paths that nobody has explored before. 

Let me give you a couple of examples. Sofía Palamarchuk started as a junior performance tester in Uruguay. After a couple of years, she wanted to try her hand at sales. She was really good at it. Then she moved to the US so we could conduct business there as well. After that, thanks to her entrepreneurial spirit, she became the CEO of the company. And nowadays she is leading a new startup, where we’re partners. 

Another example is Vera Babat. She was our first English teacher at Abstracta. She’s also a psychologist, so we started to develop soft skills during English classes and after a couple of years, she became our Chief People Officer. And nowadays, if you want to learn more about soft skills with her, you can check out her podcast, which is called The Everything Else Podcast. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s really good and it’s in English. So give it a try!

But, something important to highlight: I can’t take credit as a leader for all that we have built. We built this together. It’s not up to the leader to define how someone is going to grow. You have to try to be flexible. For me, this is the important part. 

Give those you lead opportunities and different options for what they can do. Also listen to different possibilities that you might not have imagined before and then let them make their own decision. At the end of the day, they’ll feel more motivated and satisfied. 

Strengths vs Weaknesses

A very important aspect to also take into account is that leaders should focus on others’ strengths and not only on their weaknesses, because if we try to minimize the weaknesses of every team member, we’ll end up with a team of very similar people. It would result in a very flat or bland team instead of a group of very diverse and authentic, thriving people with complementary skills that learn from each other day after day.

And you know what’s the problem here for a leader who used to be a tester? It’s really hard for us to focus less on weaknesses because we’ve learned to pay more attention to risk, to the problems in a system, to the things that should be improved. We are looking for bugs everywhere!

I remember myself making plans with the people I lead about how to improve the things that they were not good at many times. Instead, I could have been paying more attention to the things that they were really doing well, that they could further improve upon and shine in. 

We should find a balance. Think about it, it’s more motivating for a person to be working and improving on something that they are really good at than something that’s potentially frustrating for them. When you focus on their strengths, you show the person that you believe in them, even more than what they believe in themselves. And this is love.

See in the other person something that she or he is not capable of seeing and help them see it. It might sound cheesy, I know, but people need to be loved. People need to feel that someone cares, that someone believes in them.”

Receive Feedback and Demonstrate How You Act On It

Moving on to the next idea, I also want to talk about feedback, because feedback is not something that is useful in and of itself. What really matters is what you do with the feedback you receive. And also make sure that you provide visibility on the actions that you take in response. 

I remember I learned this the hard way. Some years ago, a tester told me that she was suffering through a specific situation. So I listened to what she was saying, and I started to act, but I failed to give visibility into that. I failed to communicate that I was doing something about it at the proper time.

This person decided to leave the company because she felt that we were not taking care of her, that we weren’t paying attention to what she said and that saddened me because it was my fault. So this is how I learned that it’s not only important to listen and provide the mechanisms to obtain feedback, but also to act and to provide visibility into your actions. 

Something else to highlight related to feedback is that, there exists an asymmetry between the leader and the tester. It doesn’t matter how horizontal the company is. So it’s more complicated to get honest feedback from your testers. Of course, you have the option of gathering anonymous feedback, but this is not the option I prefer. I think it’s better to promote a culture where people feel safe to speak their mind and they are accountable for what they say.

But, the point I wanted to make here is that to get honest feedback, it’s crucial to build trust. How can you do that? Well, one of the things that I believe is really important is to show that you really appreciate any feedback and that you don’t get defensive. But above all, I think the most important thing is to actively listen, so you show that you care; that you’re interested in what they want to say. 

A Sad Leader is a Bad Leader

Last but not least, it’s important to pay attention to the motivation of your testers, but also to your own, because a sad leader doesn’t lead anyone. 

Something that I realized is that when you take care of someone else, you also take better care of yourself. I don’t have kids yet, but I am sure this will sound familiar for those who do. For example, on a sunny summer day, you’ll probably use more sunscreen if you’re with children, because you’ll apply it on them every few hours. Once you put on their sunscreen, you’ll also use some yourself because it’ll be on your hands anyway. I think the same thing happens when we motivate others. 

You ask those you lead questions related to how they connect with their purpose. After that, you’ll likely ask yourself the same question. So you will be paying more attention to your own motivation when you take proper care of your people. And I think this is great because you will be more coherent. And again, a sad leader doesn’t lead anyone. So make it clear, everyone should notice, everyone should see that the motivation is flowing in your veins.

Don’t Be Sad When Talent Leaves You

Something that typically affects the motivation of any leader is when someone decides to leave the team, to leave the company. It’s heartbreaking. Some years ago, I changed my perspective about this and I want to share it with you so maybe it can help to see things in another way. 

I think we have to accept that there are cycles, natural cycles. In Abstracta, we used to try to retain people. We stopped doing that. Actually, what we believe is that people should be where they want to be. If someone decides to go to another company because they got a better opportunity there, that’s great. We likely had something to do with the opportunity because while the person was working with us, they were learning new things or new skills that allowed them to access it. Our focus should be on getting the best out of the relationship, while it lasts. The best for us, for the company, and for the person. If it’s going to be three years, great. How can we make those years memorable? In the end, they may end up staying for even longer!

4 Things Leaders Should Keep in Mind

To summarize, if you want to keep your testers motivated, it’s important to:

  • Connect with your purpose and encourage others to connect what they do to their purpose as well
  • Allow those you lead the freedom and flexibility to forge their own career path 
  • Be careful with how you deal with feedback and don’t forget to provide visibility into your actions in response to that feedback
  • Keep your motivation in check in order to motivate others

With this, I hope you can also inspire your testers (or anyone) to be better, to improve, to continue growing, to stay motivated, doing what they do. If you have more ideas or relevant experiences that you want to share, leave me a comment!

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